New report highlights climate benefits of compact development


ULI report cover: Land Use and Driving

I sometimes imagine being confronted with this question in my old age: what have you done to help prevent climate change? Sadly, I am no paragon of the energy-efficient human. I goose the thermostat to 68 degrees when I am cold, and my wife and I launder our clothes in an electric washer and dryer. Our car, acquired many years ago, has more horsepower than is absolutely necessary to get me from one place to another.

But at least I will be able to make this claim: I have lived most of my adult life in cities, where I have been able to walk and take public transportation to shopping, work, movies, and museums. And my compact San Francisco condominium, with another unit above for insulation and buildings abutting on both sides to shield it from wintertime Pacific gales, requires much less energy to heat than if it was a freestanding suburban home.

I don’t maintain that city living is a sacrifice. I enjoy living in San Francisco, which with more than 16,600 people per square mile, is the second more densely populated large city in the U.S.  I welcome the convenience of walkability and the spirit and community of the city’s neighborhoods.  And I enjoy San Francisco’s  many parks and showcase public spaces (more on those in a moment), without which I would surely be afflicted with what writer Richard Louv calls “nature-deficit disorder.”  If living here is also good for the environment and helps to address the climate crisis—well, that’s frosting on the cake.

A new report from the Urban Land Institute (ULI) makes the case for compact development as a way of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

When people have the opportunity to work, play, and shop closer to their homes, they drive less. This translates into reduced energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions, and helps in the fight against climate change. ULI’s new report, Land Use and Driving: The Role Compact Development Can Play in Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions, shows that changing our land use patterns can be a meaningful component of broader strategies to address climate change.

The ULI report focuses on transportation amd summarizes the results of three recent research projects.

Three recent studies—-Moving Cooler, Growing Cooler, and Driving and the Built Environment—-have addressed this question. Examining the connection between land use and driving from different angles, analysis in all three of the reports suggests that compact development can reduce driving, and therefore energy consumption, when it makes up a significant portion of new development.

Moving Cooler and Growing Cooler, both published by the Washington, D.C.-based Urban Land Institute, and Driving and the Built Environment, produced by the National Academy of Sciences’ Transportation Research Board, are three very different studies. However, each of them examines the connection between land use and driving, and tests the effect that building in a more compact way can have on energy and greenhouse gas emissions.

The conclusion?  Increasing building density by between 25 percent and 75 percent would decrease vehicle miles traveled in these households by 12 percent and 25 percent respectively.

While the report briefly lists the characteristics of compact development and mentions the growing demand for living in city centers and urban environments, it does not detail completely what compact communities should offer to attract residents. Which brings us to parks, greenways, and open spaces like the ones that so attract me to San Francisco. TPL believes so strongly that parks are critical in creating climate-smart communities that we have made it a central component of our Climate Conservation program.

Somebody needs to write a report of how parks and greenways encourage denser, more climate-smart development. Wait a minute—maybe TPL should do that.

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